Published September 1, 1998
Pi, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is another chapter in the popular culture’s love affair with flashy intelligence—or at least the image of it. A gritty, black-and-white, low-budget version of Good Will Hunting, it does no better a job, however, at making such intelligence look real. For in addition to the usual mathematical parlor-tricks, this particular genius, Maximilian Cohen (Sean Gullette), and his creator are also snake-oil salesmen, offering a selection of intellectual Holy Grails—an infallible stock picker, the golden ratio, the pattern in pi, the real name of God and, for all I know, perpetual motion, the unified theory and a foolproof system for betting roulette—at knock-down prices. All Max has to do is type manically at his decidedly antiquated-looking computer in between bouts of self-medicated brain-seizure.
Douglas Adams, I seem to recall, discovered that the secret of life, the universe and everything was 42. Max reckons he is off by a long way. We get a glimpse of the actual, 216-digit number, but you will have to wait for the video to stop-frame it in order to copy it down. What a lot of pretentious twaddle! At moments you think the picture is starting to raise some interesting questions. About paranoia, for instance (a big subject these days), which is a sort of inevitable concomitant of the assumption that there is a secret formula that explains everything in the universe. That little Max is the only one in the universe who knows it becomes an intolerable burden to him. But the film does not use the hero’s paranoia in any creative or humorous way. Not only does Max think he’s the chosen one of God, but the movie thinks so too. How tiresome!
Moreover, he’s not some preachy, Jesus-type messiah. Instead, he lives shut up in his room like an existentialist hero. His friend and former teacher, Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) has given himself a stroke, brought on by the strain of looking for the magic number, and he tells Max that he will drive himself crazy. The search for the 216 digit number will lead him into the echo chamber of madness where “You will find it everywhere.” His mind will filter out everything else, he tells him, except the obsession with the 216-digit number. “As soon as you discard scientific rigor, you are no longer a mathematician. You’re a numerologist.” Max pays him no heed but braves the crushing weight of both mathematical truth and psychological derangement.
He keeps encountering a disembodied brain lying about in the oddest places. It seems to be his own brain. Then again, maybe not. He is obviously hallucinating because of the many drugs he takes for his mysterious fits. At one point he seems to plug the computer into his own brain. Meanwhile, he is squashing ants everywhere in his computer room—a visual pun on the “bugs” he is simultaneously trying to work out of his program. He is also being chased by two gangs, one of goons who want his stock tips and one of crazed rabbis and Kabbalists, a fact which helps to generate sympathy for this blend of Christ and Icarus—the man who flew too near the sun. Three times he tells us that he looked directly into the sun when he was six because his mother told him not to and nearly went blind. How awful for him, to be sure, but like his present suffering it seems to have served no purpose beyond adding to his cool-résumé. If Max is, in short, the chosen of God, we never find out what he is chosen for. Just to look romantically stricken, I’m afraid.